Globe-trotting textile designer Carolina Irving unwinds at her romantic retreat on a remote stretch of Portugal’s west coast. Secrets From Portugal is here to make you fall in love with Portugal as Carolina did.
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Six years ago I fell in love with the Alentejo, a region in south-central Portugal at once austere and poetic, planted with umbrella pines and cork oaks, and graced with a pristine coastline—a sandy, secluded beach that stretches for miles along the Atlantic. I owe this to my friend Christian Louboutin, who in the spring of 2013 said to me, “Get on a plane and meet me in Lisbon. I’m going to take you to a magical place.”
I had been to Portugal many times before, from north to south, but had somehow skipped over the Alentejo. I was instantly captivated by the landscape, the savanna-like aspect of fields with just a few sculptural trees silhouetted against the intensely blue sky, the rolling hills covered with beautifully twisted cork oaks. Because it was springtime, all was covered in blooming white cistus. Storks circled over the rice fields and nested on rooftops and old electrical poles.
The “road” was dotted with just a few humble houses with thatched roofs, cactus hedges everywhere in the sand. After a few miles, we arrived at a three-acre plot with a crumbling ruin on it. The view was breathtaking, extending across rice fields and a lagoon teeming with birds to the sea in the distance. It was love at first sight, and I knew I had to buy this heavenly place and make it my own.
Building the house was fairly simple, if not entirely easy. We—my boyfriend, Bertrand; my two daughters, Olympia and Ariadne; and I—wanted to respect the landscape and the local architecture. The original fishermen’s houses are built of brick that is then limed for protection from the elements. We tried to give ours the same look but chose to use old tiles for the roof instead of the traditional rice-straw thatch. (Thatch is charming but needs to be replaced every four years, as the salt air is quite destructive.)
With that grounding, the rest of the room could be simple and rustic: whitewashed walls, a long built-in banquette with cushions of Majorcan ikats, Spanish and Portuguese ceramics, Mexican terra-cotta plates on the chimneypiece, a simple wood table covered with a black-and-white Portuguese rug.
Outside was a different story, all sand and not an ounce of soil. I had to forget about the romantic garden I used to have in Amagansett, lush with crab apples and ancient roses. But here I could plant all sorts of cacti and strange (to me) tropical and subtropical plants like jacarandas, loquats, albizzias, mimosas. . . . Even strelitzias, which I had always hated—they always made me think of those hideous bouquets you see in posh hotels—but have now learned to like.
Pergolas run all around the house for shade, covered in bright blue convolvulus, which is threatening to engulf everything. We all come as often as we can. Except for a couple of winter months, we live out of doors—just following the sun or hiding from it. Weather permitting, all meals are taken outside. I love entertaining and am totally obsessed with everything to do with it. Thank God, Olympia and Ariadne suffer from the same affliction, which is why we decided to create our tabletop collection, Carolina Irving and Daughters. I can’t think of more joyful work than travelling with them in search of artisans to collaborate with.
“It’s all been a dream come true.“
Article credits from Architectural Digest
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